Active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones use an 'active' combination of hardware (microphones) and firmware to make external sounds or noises sound quieter when you’re listening to your favourite music or podcasts.
Unlike passive noise isolation, which simply muffles those sounds by forming a seal around your ear with headphone ear cups or within your ear canal with in-ear tips, active noise cancellation listens out for background sounds and uses clever audio trickery to “cancel” these potentially disruptive sounds out. For a more in-depth explanation see ANC explained.
The best noise-cancelling headphones in Australia should have you covered for all forms of public transport, as anyone who's worn a pair on a flight or a train commute to and from work will tell you. ANC headphones have gone from strength-to-strength over the past couple of years, with many models improving their audio performances compared to predecessors, as well as incorporating the latest features such as Spatial Audio and 360 Reality Audio.
The pick of models below represent the greatest ANC headphones across all form factors, including over-ear and in-ear. Over-ear headphones often have superior noise-cancelling performance, as the earcups form a seal around the ears. Although in-ear buds are becoming increasingly more effective – not least because of the fact they fill the ear canal – and are a lot more portable.
Scroll down to find the best noise-cancelling headphones in Australia we've tested that are right for your needs and budget.
Top 3 best noise-cancelling headphones
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Best overall: Sony WH-1000XM5
Taking the top spot in our best noise-cancelling headphones list is the rather stupendous Sony WH-1000XM5. With this pair, Sony already had a winning pair with the XM4, but has made numerous worthwhile updates that make the best even better. They blend superb sound quality with elite active noise cancellation, a comfy design, a great companion app, and eco credentials.
Best ANC performance: Bose 700
The Bose 700 has unrivalled ANC performance, boasting 10 levels of ANC that can be adjusted in the Connect companion smartphone app, and which works flawlessly to silence the majority of external sounds. Sound is crystal clear when listening to music and taking calls. We also love the svelte, contemporary design with comforting ear pads and touch controls.
Best ANC battery life: Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless
The 60-hour battery life enjoyed by this pair from Sennheiser is a real crowd pleaser and makes them the ANC model to beat. Add in the easy-going Sennheiser sound and effective noise cancelling, and the Momentum 4 is one of the most practical pairs of ANC headphones we've seen, perfectly built for a life on the road rather than bring tethered to a power socket needing regular battery top ups.
The best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy right now
Best ANC over-ear headphones
Sony has been steadily closing the noise-cancelling gap on Bose, and the new Sony WH-1000XM5 comes closer than ever to beating its rival in terms of ANC performance. This pair of XM5 headphones gets two processors, controlling eight microphones, where the XM4 predecessor model (still on sale and regularly discounted) had just one processor controlling four. The result of this upgrade in our testing is near-seamless ANC. But the Sony's overall quality would make the XM5 our #1 option even if that weren't the case.
Audio quality is superb, the 30-hour battery life (with ANC) is excellent and everything from the touch controls to the ability to tweak the EQ via the Sony Headphones Connect app is well thought out and seamlessly integrated. Call quality has also been improved greatly and there's really nothing to criticise here beyond the slightly bland styling (in our opinion, anyway) and the AU$100 price increase over the XM4.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM5 review.
It truly is a close run thing between the Bose 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM5 (above) for the best overall noise-cancelling headphone crown, and there is no denying that Bose has the most effective active noise cancelling technology on the market. Period.
The Bose 700s reap those benefits, boasting 10 levels of ANC that can be adjusted in its Connect app and which works flawlessly to silence the majority of external sounds. Most importantly, the 700s achieve this without compromising sound quality, allowing listeners to enjoy clean, well-balanced sound reproduction. Bose’s companion app also lets you adjust the EQ for personalised audio.
We love the ultramodern design, and the slim, sexy silhouette is as much of an engineering feat as the ANC performance. We also appreciate the fact the Bose can usually be picked up for less than the Sony pair, most likely because they've been around a fair bit longer. But we need to address the elephant in the room – battery life, which at 20 hours with ANC enabled is outperformed by the Sony pair.
While this is a chink in its armour, whichever pair you choose, you won't be disappointed.
Read our full Bose 700 review.
Although the revamped design of Sennheiser's fourth generation Momentum Wireless headphones doesn't stand out quite like their classic-looking predecessor, the 60-hour battery life is a real crowd pleaser and makes this pair the one to beat. Add in the easy-going Sennheiser sound and effective noise cancelling, and the Momentum 4 are one of the most practical pairs of wireless headphones we've seen, perfectly built for a life on the road where regular charging could prove difficult.
Sennheiser's smooth and enjoyable house sound handles a wide range of music content, from pounding beats to more mellow tunes with aplomb. It has Bluetooth 5.2 and aptX Adaptive support, and there's a supplied 3.5mm cable for audiophile wired connections. ANC performance is effective, and auto Wind Noise Reduction is very impressive when stood on a windy train platform on daily work commutes.
Read our full Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless review.
The latest entry in Bose's QC over-ear series is the best yet, welcoming several improvements, including better active noise cancellation, sound, and battery life. ANC is as effective as it is on the 700, blocking out nearly 90 percent of ambient sound at a high rate, but if you do want to be more aware of your surroundings, the ambient-listening mode (Aware) does a fantastic job of piping in external sounds.
The combination of proprietary TriPort acoustic architecture and a volume-optimised Active EQ gives these headphones a refined, well-balanced sound signature to enjoy most music genres. Having 24 hours of ANC playtime is also huge, and along with their lower price, makes a compelling case for choosing this pair over the 700s.
Not being able to turn off ANC means the battery will drain more quickly, but the longer 24-hour life, combined with incredible ANC performance and sound quality makes up for any shortcomings.
Read our full Bose QuietComfort 45 review.
Expensive they most certainly are, but despite the high price, there is much to love about Apple's first foray into over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. The noise-cancellation on offer only has one level (compared to the adjustable level seen on other pairs) but it works like a charm. These cans do a great job of blocking out ambient sounds, especially at the lower end of the frequency spectrum. In fact, we'd say it’s almost as good as Bose’s ANC, which is a fine showing for Apple’s first pair of over-ears.
It's not just with noise-cancellation that the AirPods Max excel with, but they sound great too, especially with the surround-sound spatial audio feature switched on. And of course, in typical Apple fashion, the design standard and build quality of the AirPods Max is so high you can almost forget that these headphones cost AU$899.
That’s a lot more than the Sony and Bose headphones higher up the list, so yes, this is a luxury purchase, but can very much be a worthwhile one.
See our full Apple AirPods Max review.
The Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 over-ear headphones are priced the same as Sony's WH-1000XM5, but the active noise-cancellation proves ‘good’ rather than great’ — that’s to say, it will be perfectly acceptable to anyone who doesn’t insist on absolute silence, and this next-gen model are a worthy purchase if you prioritise overall sound quality.
They feel good, are beautifully constructed and are either good-looking in an understated way or a bit too understated for their own good — it depends on your taste. They have active noise-cancellation and a control app — but ‘extended functionality’ is not their thing.
They’re designed to deliver the best wireless sound this sort of money can buy, and they do. The entire frequency range hangs together well, with nothing overstated and nothing struggling for representation. Tonality is clean, consistent and entirely convincing.
If you want every wireless headphone feature under the sun, you have plenty of choice to look elsewhere. If, however, you want headphones that make the most of the digital audio information you give them, the Px7 S2 really needs to be in your thinking.
Rear our full Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2 review.
You’re probably wondering how a pair of AU$699 (RRP) wireless headphones with adequate noise cancellation could sneak its way onto this list. The answer is simple: spatial audio. We know these are two separate talking points, but hear us out.
The YH-L700A are an excellent-sounding model that have a better 3D sound experience than the AirPods Max. They're equipped with accurate head-tracking technology and multiple well-engineered listening modes for different content. Even with spatial audio turned off, these headphones produce spacious sound with full bass presence, delivering rich lows, palpable mids, and crisp highs. And though Yamaha’s ANC won’t match what Apple, Bose, or Sony offer, it’s still effective to enjoy premium sound in most environments.
You just have to live with its large, heavy design and uneven battery life, which fluctuates when listening with 3D enabled.
Read our full Yamaha YH-L700A review.
How's this for an ANC headphones bargain: great sound, a modern and flexible design, ample features, a useful app, a full set of accessories and the best battery life in its class, all for AU$299 RRP? That's the Cleer Enduro ANC, currently the #1 spot taker on our best cheap wireless headphones list.
The Enduro ANC aren't without their foibles — there's a fair bit of wind noise in ANC mode, and they are seemingly made with smaller ears in mind — but there's no arguing about the incredible value for money. Cleer's noise-cancelling headphones are particularly good for travellers, as we got 50 hours and 15 minutes of ANC playback time form a single charge in our testing.